We have become obsessed with heroic stories of suffering and redemption—if only the protagonists weren’t all Caucasian.
A troubled young woman leaves her husband and goes on a very long hike. It is a difficult and lonely journey, and she can’t trust other hikers she meets along the way. Some want to help her. Others endanger her. In the end, however, she triumphs: She conquers her physical torments, rids herself of self-doubt, reaches the summits, and winds up a better person with far more wealth than when she started.
This is a summary of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, but it’s also the plot of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678. There are minor differences, starting with the fact that the protagonist of Bunyan’s work is a man; the 17th century had no concept of nature hiking; and women who slept around were called “harlots” without irony. But the main difference between them is that Bunyan’s book isn’t a memoir. It’s an allegory representing the soul’s struggle to free itself from sin.
Bunyan’s protagonist is named Christian, and he’s a Christian who’s strayed from God’s word. Cheryl’s name is Strayed (as in stray lamb from Christ’s flock), and she too goes off into the semi-wilderness without a lick of preparation, surviving through the grace of God as well as the blessings of youth, good health, and a heaping helping of white privilege. Given the fact that so many have commented on the “inspirational” content of Strayed’s memoir—a reading that she finds confusing (Cheryl Strayed: “I’m like the accidental self-help author”)—I’m amazed that nobody’s noticed that Wild is the new revised version of a canonical work of King James–era Christian literature.
But Strayed is just the most recent example of a curious new trend in pop culture: the rise of the Cult of the White Sinner. It has some features in common with the White Savior Complex, i.e., a saintly White person rescues a downtrodden people from their own weaknesses. Pervading movie plots ranging from Tarzan to The Hunger Games, the White Savior Complex has become so familiar that it it’s easy to forget that it has ramifications for living, breathing humans. “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice,” observed Teju Cole, sparking a lively discussion in a series of tweets. “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
When bourgeois sentimentality masks the real economic, racial, and social problems in everyday life, people of color die. As Brit Bennett asked quite trenchantly in Jezebel: “What good are your good intentions if they kill us?”
Hence the rise of the Cult of the White Sinner as a symbol of expiation. A single White individual flagrantly exposes his or her sins, daring the audience to cast judgment, taking on the role of whipping boy and thereby also gaining the public’s grudging thanks and admiration. On television, iconic White Sinners include Sister Jude, fallen woman turned psycho nun on American Horror Story: Asylum; Walter White, wronged schoolteacher and meth kingpin of Breaking Bad; Carol Peletier, meek Christian and cold-blooded murderer in The Walking Dead; and Jax Teller, the tormented motorcycle gang leader of Sons of Anarchy. As Sons of Anarchy came to its blazing, glorious end, the writers said to hell with it, shoved aside all subtlety, held a Last Supper and sacrificed its brooding hero as Christ. Soulful and suffering, Jax died to save others, taking the sins of the world with him, with his arms outstretched to emulate the crucifixion. Just in case you couldn’t see it, Jax’s name means “God has been gracious.”
In real life, flawed human beings make mistakes, make bad choices, and sometimes commit crimes, but the narrative arc of sin, suffering, and redemption is almost uniquely afforded to White Sinners. Martha Stewart, convicted of insider trading, regained chairmanship of her media empire after being released from prison. Stephen Collins, the actor best known for playing a pastor dad on 7th Heaven, has recently confessed to sexually abusing children and is currently in a “suffering” stage; his reward is that he will not be prosecuted. Mark Wahlberg spent 45 days in prison for violently attacking two Vietnamese men (Mark Wahlberg doesn’t deserve a pardon), and is now asking for a formal pardon from the governor of Massachusetts. And where to begin with politicians—there are too many to name. These individuals don’t stand out because of their misdeeds but for loudly admitting them, inviting public outcry—but so what? They’re still rich and powerful, and you, Twitter troll, are not.
Cynically, we say that these crimes and misdemeanors make for a better story, for flaws make a famous person “relatable”! But this is disingenuous at best. Try reimagining Wild as the memoir of a jobless, promiscuous young Black heroin addict who decides to hike the Pacific Oregon trail as a way to save her soul and find herself. Women of color would shake their heads and say, That’s bullshit. We don’t get forgiveness and second chances. We get arrested.
Sadly, the well-intentioned #CrimingWhileWhite shows this double-standard to be true. A Twitter hashtag movement, #CrimingWhileWhite was used by White Americans to confess to crimes they got away with … because the police let them. In 140 characters, White Sinners got to clear their consciences while showing that they’re good people, really, who learned their lessons as well as humility. Meanwhile, the complementary hashtag, #AliveWhileBlack, remained a voice crying out into the wilderness.
Swapping out Strayed’s blonde halo for a hypothetical Black afro deprives Wild of the Cult of the White Sinner, erasing its capacity to “inspire” readers and turning it into a morality tale showing Why This Country Is Doomed. This is not Strayed’s fault. If the allegorical figures in the Pilgrim’s Progress are figments of the theological imagination, their roles are thoroughly baked into the mythology of American exceptionalism. With names like Help, Charity, and Wiseman (or, in Wild’s case, Leif), their purpose is to assist our hero/ine on the winding, steep, and narrow road to personal salvation. For three centuries, the construction of that arc of self-discovery did not entertain race—again, allegorical figures are not people, but symbols—which is precisely why so many annoyed fans complain that race has nothing to do with the story. Even when the story is The Help. It’s mean-spirited to bring up racism. It messes up the feel-good sentimentalism and distracts from the heroine’s quest to find herself.
Of course people of color enjoy adventure travel and go camping, but these experiences do not fit the “pilgrimage” narrative, and so they fall into the abyss of media silence. If a solution is to be found, it isn’t by shoehorning women of color into the role of unwilling black sheep, but by expanding horizons to places where all the sheep are, say, mountain goats. Should any of Strayed’s fans want to see the world differently, try reading Bani Amor, a queer mestiza travel writer now living in Ecuador by way of Brooklyn. In Spanish, her name means “love.”
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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